On the Eve of WWIII?

Can you believe it? We may be on the eve of World War III because a research reactor near Tehran – that mostly produces radioactive isotopes for use in medicine, and is subject to a Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency – will need refueling in a year or so.

How could that need result in WWIII?

Well, thereby hangs a tale.

With respect to the Tehran Research Reactor, the Iranians have essentially three options.

[1] The Iranians want to purchase replacement fuel – which is uranium with the U-235 isotope enriched to about 20% – as they did in 1992 (from Argentina). But, because of the U.S. and UN imposed sanctions on Iran, it seems unlikely that Argentina or any other HEU producing nation would or could sell Iran the needed fuel.

[2] The Iranians could modify their existing IAEA-Safeguarded uranium-enrichment cascades – currently configured so as to produce enriched-uranium with the U-235 isotope enriched to less than 5% – to IAEA-Safeguarded cascades capable of producing 20% U-235. But the Iranians don’t want to do that because it would be "uneconomic." Besides, if the Likudniks seem hell-bent on destroying Iran’s LEU cascades, just imagine how they would react to Iran having HEU cascades.

[3] The Iranians could just shut down the Tehran Research Reactor and get out of the medical isotope business, at least temporarily. After all, the much larger 40 MW natural-uranium fueled, heavy water moderated, reactor under construction at Arak, will be operational not long after TRR runs out of fuel, capable of producing not only a significant fraction of the world’s medical isotopes, but will inevitably produce significant quantities of weapons-grade Plutonium in its spent natural-uranium fuel, as well. You can perhaps imagine what the Likudniks think about that option.

Fortunately, Mohamed ElBaradei – the outgoing Director-General of the IAEA Secretariat – has proposed a fourth option.

Iran would ship most of its uranium (already enriched to about 4% U-235 for contingent use in the Russian-built 1000 MWe nuclear power plant soon to begin operation at Bushehr) to Russia, where it would be further enriched to about 20% U-235.

The proposed agreement would call for Russia to "sub-contract" the production of the highly-enriched uranium (HEU) fuel elements, to a French entity.

The problem is that the French have now demanded that all the Iranian HEU be shipped to them from Russia at one time, not in batches, and the Iranians – understandably, on the basis of their past experience with Eurodif and the French – have reportedly declined to agree to that.

Why have the French taken that position? Well, it seems they believe that if the Iranians are allowed to send their LEU to Russia and their HEU, thence, to France in batches, the Israelis will feel that they will have no alternative but to attack and destroy the IAEA-Safeguarded facilities at Natanz, Arak and elsewhere.

How would most of the world react to that?

Well, take the wanton destruction of Arak, an IAEA-Safeguarded medical-isotope production facility.

Radioisotope Molydenum-99, is a "daughter" product of the fission of Uranium-235, when used as a "target," in the reactor. Moly-99 promptly decays to another radioisotope, Technetium-99, which is used as a "tracer" in tens of thousands of medical procedures every day in the United States.

Canada has just announced it is getting out of the medical isotope business. Hence, the principal source for that Moly-99 – and hence, for Tc-99, the short-lived tracer – will probably be Russia. And, perhaps in a few years, Iran.

Why does that matter? Moly-99 has a decay half-life of only 67 hours. If you make a batch of Moly-99, after 67 hours, half of it is gone. And since the half-life of the daughter, Tc-99, is so much shorter – only 6 hours – when half of your Moly-99 supply is gone, so, essentially, is half of your Tc-99 tracer. That means that nuclear medical men need a freshly brewed batch of Moly-99 ever week or so.

Now it is very desirable for a radioactive tracer to have a short half-life. The Tc-99 is injected into the patient shortly before the medical procedure begins and by the time the procedure is over half of it has decayed away. In a few days time, the Tc-99 radioactivity remaining in the patient is practically undetectable.

Since it has such a short half-life, it is necessary that Tc-99 be produced only shortly before it is actually needed. Moly-99 continually produces Tc-99 by beta-decay, which means that "mother" and "daughter" are different chemical elements and can easily be separated chemically.

Moly-99 is one of the most likely isotopes to be produced in Uranium-235 fission. In the most economic production process, highly enriched uranium (HEU) – 93.5 percent Uranium-235 – is plated on a target and irradiated in a nuclear reactor.

The United States has attempted to completely eliminate the use of HEU by the private sector.

The Schumer Amendment to the Energy Policy Act of 1992 resulted in – among other things – restrictions on exports of our HEU to Moly-99 producers. Our Nuclear Regulatory Commission is prohibited from issuing a license for the export of HEU to Moly-99 producers unless, a) there are no LEU targets available and the Moly-99 producer promises that whenever LEU targets do become available that, b) he will switch to them.

But guess what. The recovery of Moly-99 from LEU targets effectively involves the reprocessing of "spent fuel," and most medical-isotope producers are reluctant to get involved in the associated regulatory mess. Even in their March 23, 2005 confidential offer to the French-Brits-Germans – ostensibly then negotiating on behalf of the European Union – the Iranians, among other things, offered to voluntarily restrict certain of their inalienable rights, including foregoing the reprocessing of spent fuel and the recovery of plutonium, there-from.

So, now we have the French – with some alleged EU support – refusing to allow the "batch" production of replacement fuel for the TRR. Which probably means the Iranians will just shut down that IAEA-Safeguarded medical-isotope producing facility in a year or so.

Worse, the Iranians will not only keep all the LEU they have thus far produced at their IAEA-Safeguarded facilities, but will produce more, if the Israelis don’t attack and destroy them.

Worse still, if the Israelis attack and destroy the IAEA-Safeguarded natural-uranium fueled, heavy-water moderated, medical-isotope producing reactor nearing completion at Arak, that may be, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Who knows, we may even have World War III on our hands.

Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.